Towering Ambition
Of All China's Stories, None May Be More Telling Than The Ones Architects Are Creating in Concrete and Steel

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 22, 2008


A few months ago, one of China's most outspoken and admired architects was asked to name the stupidest thing he's heard someone say about Chinese architecture. Speaking at a Columbia University conference, Qingyun Ma offered up a question rather than a statement: "What is Chinese architecture?"

He hates it when people ask that.

But how can you not ask it? Half of the construction in the world today is happening in China. Driven by a booming economy and a huge population migration to the country's cities, making new buildings is a round-the-clock, frantic, awe-inspiring national obsession. It is happening at such a rapid rate that young Chinese architects, even ones still finishing architecture degrees, have burgeoning portfolios of built projects -- while their counterparts in the West may spend the first two decades of their careers mulling the philosophical niceties of what it means to dwell. And given that Ma isn't just a prominent Chinese architect, but also dean of the architecture school at the University of Southern California, the question has a certain urgency. Whether they know it or not, young architects in China may already be learning to make Chinese architecture -- whatever that turns out to be.

Ma's exasperation, however, is understandable. Asking "What is Chinese architecture?" is a bit like asking "What is Western art?" There's too much to be considered. Western architects have flocked to China, where they can build projects on a scale that would be impossible almost anywhere else today. With the Olympics focusing world attention on Beijing, China can boast two new world-class athletic facilities and one soon-to-be-completed office tower that have set the standard for powerful, daring, jaw-dropping architecture -- all designed by blue-chip foreign firms. But it's not clear that what they're producing is Chinese architecture.

Nor is it easy to talk about the history of Chinese architecture. The red roofs and upturned gables that define its ancient buildings suggest a monumentality and permanence that many Chinese scholars believe is misleading. And throughout much of the last century, fraught with war and revolution and cultural violence, China basically checked out of the larger, international conversation about the built environment.

So the current building boom feels strangely alien, like an outside force with unknowable intentions, even to many Chinese who take pride in their country's economic growth. New mega-projects have thrust the country into the forefront of architectural innovation, while cheap construction puts a veneer of shabbiness on almost everything that isn't a government-backed super-project with a Western architect at the helm.

The question "What is Chinese architecture?" turns out to be another way of asking "What is China's future?" Is it a globalized vision of modernity? Are there nascent ideas yet to emerge that will transform the generic into something uniquely Chinese? Or will the sheer accumulation of mass -- the great, gray forests of new construction choked in smog and haze -- overwhelm all efforts to steer it in a sustainable, aesthetic and humane direction?

Very likely: all of the above.

Instant Icons

One thing is clear. When the Chinese government goes shopping for architecture, it doesn't just want name brands, it wants best in class.

Beijing is now dotted with stunning buildings. For the Olympics, the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron designed the new National Stadium, already an icon. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and partner Ole Scheeren of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (based in the Netherlands) are building the massive new China Central Television tower. Norman Foster, the Brit who designed the Hearst Tower in New York and the new glass-covered courtyard at the Old Patent Office Building in the District, has also designed the city's new airport, now the largest in the world, and it's beautiful enough to break through the cynicism and jitters of even the most jaded traveler.

With the appearance of these landscape-altering projects, the city once defined by the massive, squat, faceless architecture of the state is learning how to have an opinion on the subject of architecture. And this new, theatrical architecture is inviting Beijing to discover how we love buildings -- and how we hate them, too.

The National Stadium is as compelling a building to appear anywhere in the world in recent years. Its enthusiastic embrace by both city residents and Chinese architects is certainly genuine, even if television is filled with an endless parade of pimple-free teeny-boppers singing "We are ready!" and encouraging the country to love all things associated with the Olympic Games. Known as the Bird's Nest because of its huge and poetic steel exoskeleton, the stadium has become perhaps the single most iterated symbol in the grand, exhausting propaganda campaign for the Olympics.

But Paul Andreu's National Theater, a titanium-clad egg-shaped structure just off Tiananmen Square in downtown Beijing, hasn't been so lucky. Although it is a powerful spectacle, especially at sunset, when it seems particularly buoyant in the pool of water that surrounds it on all sides, there is little enthusiasm for it. One architect faulted it for being essentially a big dome over multiple theater spaces, with little rational arrangement of the interior. It doesn't help that as it was being built, a terminal Andreu designed for Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport collapsed, raising doubts about the architect. Or that it's the kind of building that is always surrounded by security guards, who police every infraction of public order. Or that it is wildly different from the historic buildings, the old hutongs (neighborhoods) and the more than half-century-old Maoist piles that surround it.

Feelings about another massive project -- the China Central Television tower by Koolhaas and Scheeren -- fall somewhere between the enthusiastic reception of the Bird's Nest and the glum acceptance of Andreu's egg. The CCTV tower is a steel behemoth rising above the city's rapidly growing central business district. It looks like a single skyscraper that has been broken and reassembled into two L-shaped pieces and fitted together on an angle, resulting in a single, continuous rectilinear tube. A huge amount of the building's space is known as "the overhang," because it is suspended some 500 feet above the city.

It is a building thrilling and horrifying at the same time. The CCTV tower is deliberately, brutally, almost absurdly iconic, imitating the blunt, slick and professional voice of the state media it will contain. Its shape sends a basic message: We can defy gravity. Which is another way of saying: Our power is unlimited.

When asked about the building, several Chinese architects focused on the question of . . . steel. This says a lot about the space they operate in, compared with the rarefied world of Koolhaas and other Western stars. The issue of steel isn't minor. China consumes steel at more than three times the rate of the United States, and prices for steel have been steadily rising. Lining up a reliable and affordable supply of steel is a concern for anyone building in China.

Ma Liangwei, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning and Design, speaks for many when he says the CCTV tower is too expensive, that it required too much money to engineer, that it is all about "shamelessly showing off." Wang Jun, an authority on the Beijing cityscape, says the tower "tames the buildings" around it -- an astute observation not just about the bland corporate architecture of the central business district, but the role of CCTV in Chinese society.

A Most Basic Building

In the shadow of these high-profile projects are thousands of what may be the most characteristic, most essential buildings in China today: the blue-and-white shed.

It is usually two floors high, made of a metal frame, with walkways and stairs on the outside. Sometimes two or more of these rectangular, temporary structures are joined together, often with their doors and windows facing each other, as if in imitation of the age-old courtyard houses that once filled Chinese cities. These buildings, seen at the peripheries of construction sites, serve as housing for the migrant workers who have come to the cities to build the towers and shopping malls and apartment complexes that are the most visible manifestation of China's double-digit economic growth.

Some of these sheds bustle with people all day, given the round-the-clock shifts at many building sites. The sheds have all the usual signs of haphazard domesticity -- laundry is hung willy-nilly, empty instant-noodle cups are littered about -- that men, living far from their families, display. Everything about the structures suggests impermanence.

One might consider the standardized shed as beneath the dignity of the word "architecture," except that the shed's transient quality may well be one of the fundamentally Chinese characteristics of building today. Chen Zhao, an architect and historian who teaches at Nanjing University, which has one of the country's best architecture schools, insists that the first step to understanding architecture in China is to get rid of the word "architecture."

It is a distracting concept, he says, at least when used "in the same sense as in Europe." Zhao, like other Chinese architects, says that ideas of permanence and monumentality -- so essential to much of Western architectural thinking -- are essentially foreign to "architecture" in China. Throughout the long millenniums of Chinese history, building has been more functional, limited to standard types of structures. Cities are made and remade, buildings are built and rebuilt. A place -- the axial center of a city, the environs near a temple -- often matters more than what it is built there. Buildings aren't necessarily conceived of as a permanent, lasting solution to a particular social need. They are expendable, sometimes in as little as 15 or 20 years.

"The obsolescence cycle is like a dog's life," says Thomas Campanella, author of a new book, "The Concrete Dragon," a powerful overview of China's huge building boom and its social and environmental consequences.

Regulating the Rise

Between the transient architecture of the blue-and-white shed and the trophy architecture of Koolhaas, there's a vast middle ground. If the former symbolizes the country's refreshing and sometimes terrifying willingness to make and remake its landscape, and the latter suggests the power of its ambition and determination to compete on the world stage, the middle ground seems to belong to forces beyond anyone's control. It is a frenetic, chaotic, often frustrating world, where the great torrents of China's economic miracle are channeled through a maze of unpredictability and regulation. For better and worse, the architects working in this space are building the China that China will have to live with.

Teh Kon Hu, whose firm is based in Kansas City but does extensive work in China, remembers when construction on an axle plant he had designed simply came to a stop -- at harvest time.

"There's no way you can stop it," he says. "All the workers disappear. And when they came back three weeks later, 200 of the 400 workers were different."

Johannes Dell, who runs the Shanghai office of AS&P architects, puts it more bluntly: "When you catapult a peasant from a rice paddy to the 81st floor and say you should install a suspended ceiling, this is what happens." By "this" he means sloppy work, something lamented by almost every architect in China who doesn't have access to the resources of a Rem Koolhaas or a Herzog & de Meuron. Sleek, modernist structures often suffer the most. Look closely at a generic concrete, glass and steel box in China and you see lines of bad rivets, cracks in the concrete, misaligned moldings and flashings, and holes where they shouldn't be.

There is also a shifting landscape of government regulation. Li Hu, a partner in Steven Holl Architects, a prominent American firm with several projects underway in China, remembers an instance in which the exterior wall of a building had to be redesigned midway through the project when the government mandated more functional windows. He also says it is difficult to persuade government regulators to accept state-of-the-art engineering ideas that are common in the West. There is, paradoxically, a huge interest in cutting-edge architecture, and an official culture that requires buildings to be unnecessarily overengineered and overbuilt.

"There is a lack of a sense of trust that is common throughout China," Hu says.

Even as China hurtles headlong into the age of ruthless capitalism, building regulation is a quiet, behind-the-scenes vestigial holdout of social engineering. Distances between buildings are tightly controlled, sometimes resulting in what would seem (to American urbanists) like unwanted dead spaces in the urban fabric and often jagged or irrational frontage on streets. There is also a law that forbids new structures to blot out the sun from older residential buildings. No apartment can receive less than two hours of sun on the shortest day of the year, says Jun Xia, design director for Gensler architects in Shanghai. The consequences of this seemingly basic rule are so complex that there is special software to deal with it.

And then there is the perpetual change in Chinese government, especially in the provinces where bureaucrats move up the ladder to better posts every few years. Smaller cities -- and in China that means cities of only a few million inhabitants -- are the crucible of edgy new work, especially for Chinese architects who often lose to Western architects for the trophy projects in places such as Beijing and Shanghai. But ambitious political figures who sponsor progressive new architecture -- and you find it in the most unlikely places -- may only be around for a few years. If a project can't be pushed through to conclusion during their tenure, it may well be dropped after new leadership comes in. So there is a perpetual sense of urgency -- and a lot of unmaterialized work.

There is a dark side to all of this, as well -- a dark side much discussed after the massive earthquake in Sichuan province last month. The need for speed, combined with the perpetual migration of workers, leads to sloppy construction. The cost of steel results in a tendency to scrimp on reinforced concrete, which can have fatal consequences. Regulation, no matter how well intended, is only as good as its enforcement, and the quality of enforcement has two essential variables: the distance from the central government in Beijing, and the degree of corruption in the locality.

The demand for new architects has also strained the educational system that produces them. Fifty years ago, there were fewer than two dozen architecture programs in China. Today, according to Bao Jiasheng, an architect who is also vice president of the National Board of Architectural Accreditation, there are 183. (In the United States there are 129, according to the American Institute of Architects.) And that doesn't include an unknown number of unaccredited programs that operate on what would be a community college level in the United States. The professionalism of architects emerging from those programs is unknown.

'Beijing 2050'

In a roomful of young architecture students at Nanjing University, the uncertain future of Chinese architecture is obvious. They are fluent in all the current trends, interested in building small and modest and "green." They are conversant with the latest projects of glamorous architects such as Koolhaas. They are also up on their theory, and cite Kenneth Frampton, with enthusiasm. Frampton, an English architect, has been particularly concerned with how regional cultures can harvest new ideas from the globalized style of the last century.

That is the essential problem of architecture in this tremendously dynamic country. "What is Chinese architecture?" may be a stupid question, but it certainly haunts the minds of the country's younger generation of architects. They are deeply concerned that what they build be Chinese, even if only in a vaguely "spiritual" sense. They respect the native forms -- the upturned gables, the courtyards and walls of rammed earth -- but there's little sense that these offer much direction for a new Chinese architecture in our globalized age.

In an old neighborhood in Beijing, at well after 9 p.m. on a weekday, the office of an architecture firm called MAD is still buzzing. Founded by Yansong Ma, a U.S.-educated architect whose star is rapidly rising, MAD has the bohemian feel and energy of any young, up-and-coming firm anywhere in the world. Yet it also has an enormous amount of work -- major buildings throughout the country. Its architects also like to make statements, provoke, propose ideas in competition that are meant to agitate the status quo. On the wall is a rendering for what they call "Beijing 2050," a futurist vision of the city center a half-century from now.

It is a peculiar future, however. Although the project includes some decidedly futurist elements, central Beijing hasn't been transformed into some unrecognizable forest of avant-garde shapes. Rather, it's been covered in green. Tiananmen Square is a forest, and Paul Andreu's egg has been covered by a little hillock of trees in a pool of water. The image exudes a calm, an organic peacefulness, at odds with everything around it: the city, the country and MAD's own daring and often biomorphic building designs. "Beijing 2050" is a vision of the future in which the mistakes have been covered over, the city has calmed down, nature has returned and some kind of spiritual equilibrium has been achieved.

It's a lovely vision -- and young American architects can only envy the practical experience that even the most esoteric firms are gaining in China. But most architects in China will never dream these kinds of dreams. They will emerge from architecture schools and go straight into the state-affiliated design institutes that do the heavy lifting of architecture. They will work for years in a system that resembles medical internship in this country -- small pay for huge amounts of work, with the credit taken by their superiors. They will design factories and apartment complexes and shopping centers, with little more creative input than one has pressing the button on a photocopying machine. They will further a profound transformation of their country, with virtually no influence on its direction. If they remember pondering the question "What is Chinese architecture?" from their student days, it will be a distant memory. They will be too busy building to think about such things.

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